When it comes to learning a language, a lot of people give up before they even start – largely because of a false belief that it is too difficult to learn another language. There is no such thing as a person who is unable to learn a new language. There are different degrees of ease with which a person learns a language, but anyone can be bilingual with enough effort. This is true even when learning Italian. The first step is to believe you can learn Italian, because you really can. The second step is to relax and enjoy the process. After all, Italian is the closest language to Latin, the language that virtually all other western languages are based on. You will already have a basis in the language simply by speaking English – this will make vocabulary building that much easier.
As an English speaker, you will find that Italian is actually one of the easiest languages to learn. It doesn’t require learning an entirely different alphabet (like any Asian, Russian, Arabic, or Greek language), and spelling is already somewhat familiar because English is based (at least in part) on it. The Italian sentence structure is also very similar to English, making it easier to start speaking in sentences once you have acquired an adequate vocabulary. Word order is nearly identical, so once you are familiar with the basics, it should be easy to start understanding what people say (even if it takes a while to start talking in Italian).
The biggest differences between English and Italian lie in their sounds and grammar. Many of the sounds are also the same, though there are some unique sounds that you may not have been exposed to previously. Nor do the same letters translate to the same sounds. For English speakers, learning to pronounce some sounds in Italian can be tricky; trying to spell words correctly is less problematic. Probably the biggest complication is the use of gendered nouns. They do not follow the rules that you may expect them to, so memorization is going to be the key to getting them right.
It’s important for you to understand where the differences are and why they exist. It may not be easy to understand initially, but as you delve further into the language, the rules start to make it easier to understand and predict the sounds and spellings.
Native-English speakers who are learning Italian may initially stumble because some of the differences between the two languages come as a surprise. This is because we tend to take our own native languages for granted, but they reflect the way we think and our cultures. To keep you from being blindsided, here are some of the biggest differences between Italian and English.
Keep in mind, the vocabulary is going to be very different, but that is something you can sit and memorize. Getting the right grammatical rhythm is far trickier and knowing the potential problems ahead of time can help you start to reprogram your thinking as you learn.
There are many differences between these two European languages, but these are the 10 that tend to cause English speakers the most trouble when learning Italian.
1.) Italian nouns have genders
English is one of the simplest European languages because all nouns have the same articles. This means that English nouns are gender neutral, except for nouns that refer specifically to a living creature that has a gender, such as “hen” and “rooster.”
All Italian nouns are more complex, but for now we are going to focus on the two primary genders, masculine singular and feminine singular. (Italian also uses different articles for the plural versions of nouns, but if you know the singular gender, you just need to remember to change the article when you use the plural version of the noun.) Sometimes, the gender of a noun is directly related to the gender of the thing it’s referring to. More often, the gender is completely arbitrary, and it will require memorizing the words and their genders.
Gender affects sentence construction, too. The article must match the gender of the noun: the English word “the” is either masculine singular or feminine. Other parts of speech, including relative pronouns and adjectives, must also match the gender of the noun.
For most native English-speakers, gender is one of the most complicated new rules to grasp. Once you’ve gotten the gist of it, you’re well on your way to mastering Italian grammar!
2.) Adjectives come after nouns
Something you don’t notice when speaking English is that you use the adjectives first, giving the person the description of an object before they know what the object is. For example, you can talk about the large, red truck in English. In Italian, the adjectives come after the object, so you would talk about the truck large red. That means that the person listening to you will have an image of the object, and will then impose the description over it.
There are a few exceptions to this rule that you might encounter because some types of adjectives work differently. One example is a quantifier, which is an adjective that describes how many of something there are. You would say “the house blue,” but “the only house.” At least for now, focus on learning to think of putting the adjective second. This will help you start to speak a little faster with fewer obvious mistakes.
In English, there are many prefixes that can be added to various words to create the opposite of that word or negate its meaning. For example, there is the difference between “efficient” and “inefficient” or “grateful” and “ungrateful.” There are also negating words, like “no” and “not.” There are right and wrong times to use all of these, and it can take years for children to learn the proper use of these words.
This is not a problem in Italian because you can negate any verb by simply putting “no” before it. Also, Italian uses double-negatives as the default. This is why “I don’t want nothing” is correct in Italian but not in English.
4.) Italian views some letters as foreign
English and Italian have the same alphabet, but Italian treats a few of letters as outsiders. Largely, these are letters that were not used in Latin: j, k, w, x, and y. Any word that includes these words in Italian are words that were imported into the language – that means that you will not encounter these letters very often because they do not appear naturally in Italian. This will make it easier to spell because words that have these letters are often going to be imported from English, so they will be spelled similar to (if not exactly) like you see them in English.
5.) In Italian, there are five tenses
Compared to the minimum of 12 tenses in English (even that number is up for debate, proving just how complicated our verbs are), Italian only have five: simple past, present, imperfect, future, and conditional. To achieve the same meaning as English tenses, Italian uses auxiliary words. It will definitely be tricky in the beginning, but when you get the hang of it, you may end up preferring it.
6.) In Italian, the verb “to have” can be used to express feeling
In English, we talk about feelings using some form of a “being” verb, like “am.” In Italian, the verb for “to have” is often used instead. For example, instead of saying “I am 20 years old,” a Italian-speaker would say “I have 20 years.” This is similar for many other traits, such as hunger (“I have hunger”).
There’s a long list of words that use this construction. Keep an eye out for the Italian verb for “to have” conjugations in your studies!
7.) Italian has fewer prepositions
English relies heavily on prepositions to provide details in discussions because we focus on describing where something is oriented in time and space. For example, “The cat is sitting on top of the chair, and the dog is sleeping under it.” While Italian certainly has prepositions, there are fewer of them in Italian than there are in English. This can cause some ambiguity for English speakers who are accustomed to more precise descriptions of location.
A single Italian preposition can be used for several different prepositions that we use in English, and it may take a while to learn when you can use a particular preposition. Learning exactly what is meant by these prepositions can be challenging for English speakers, but having fewer words to choose from can also make it much easier to remember all of them.
8.) Pronouns can often be omitted
In English, forming a proper sentence means always providing a subject (with commands being the only exception).
Italian lets you assume what is the logical subject from context. For example, to talk about your age you would say “have 20 years,” and it is implied that “I” is the subject. This will definitely take a little time to get used to, but ultimately, it can make things a lot easier.
9.) Emphasis is moved to the end of the sentence
One of the most frustrating aspects to learn as an English speaker is that Italian does not have the same kinds of rules dictating sentence structure. It is far more fluid and changeable than English, which means trying to understand a native speaker can be almost painful in the beginning. Where English relies on words for emphasis, Italian does it through restructuring the sentence. The thing that a speaker wants to emphasis goes to the end of the sentence, which means the structure changes on the point the speaker is trying to make.
10.) Spelling is much easier in Italian
Unlike English, which is filled with homonyms and irregular spelling rules, Italian spelling is very intuitive and usually phonetic. Once you know the sounds that each letter makes, you’ll always be able to spell the word just by sounding it out. There are only five vowels in Italian, and they always make the same sounds. Even though vowels may have accents added for emphasis, even those are easy to master if you know how the word is pronounced. Do be aware that the sounds you are familiar with for each letter could be different.
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